by Renee Rollins
Although St. Dominic Health Services is 170 miles from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it became evident on August 29, 2005, that a category four hurricane can quickly become an equal opportunity disaster, spreading devastation and causing untold problems for those much further inland. Not only were Mississippi’s coastal towns almost completely wiped out, the destructive effects of hurricane Katrina could be seen well into the central Mississippi region, including structural damage, downed trees and power outages, and inadequate supplies of fresh drinking water, ice, and gasoline.
St. Dominic Health Services, sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, operates the 571 bed-St. Dominic Hospital and St. Dominic Community Health Services in Jackson and St. Catherine’s Retirement Village 10 miles to the north in Madison. Neither Jackson nor Mississippi has ever experienced a disaster near the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina. During the height of the storm, torrential rains and wind above 80 miles per hour hit St. Dominic’s. Fortunately, this caused no significant structural damage.
The first order of business was to assist patients from hard-hit hospitals to the south. St. Dominic’s shared the burden with other area hospitals, yet individually received and treated over 100 evacuated patients. St. Dominic closed its family medical clinics to utilize clinical resources in the emergency department and other critical care areas. Also, the medical staff set aside elective procedures to assist St. Dominic’s in accommodating more critically ill patients.
Many employees had no power, water, ice, and food, and school closings left them without childcare, yet St. Dominic’s spirit of community came through in the time of crisis. The hospital prepared extra meals, offered shower facilities, and expanded daycare availability. Unoccupied patient care areas were opened for employees to spend the night, since many were needed to work extra shifts.
Migrating evacuees from Hurricane Katrina doubled the population of central Mississippi in a matter of days, and St. Dominic’s emergency department faced significantly higher volumes of patients. The majority suffered from minor injuries and heat-related illness.
With the situation under control within the hospital, employees didn’t have to look far to find ways to serve others outside St. Dominic’s walls. The horrible hurricane brought with it the remarkable opportunity for the St. Dominic family to extend its mission of Christian healing into the community, Local residents and evacuees alike were weary, afraid, and devastated by extreme heat and lack of basic necessities. Staff and volunteers walked up a multi-story assisted living center to deliver lunches, ice, and bottled water; to check blood pressure, and to assess the overall physical health and well-being of the elderly residents. Employees also mobilized hospital vehicles to distribute goods from a local church to various shelters within Jackson.
The staff of St. Catherine’s Village was extending its hand to help even before Katrina hit. The Village took in evacuees ahead of the storm, and when the power went out, immediately put its emergency preparedness plan into place to keep residents comfortable, fed, and cared for. St. Dominic’s Community Health Clinic, which normally treats the homeless and working poor of Jackson’s inner city, got involved with disaster relief as well. Clinic staff collected medical and hygienic supplies and delivered them to distribution sites. They also worked with United Way and the Red Cross, treating evacuees and filling basic prescriptions, providing tetanus injections for relief teams, and working closely with Catholic Charities to meet community needs.
St. Dominic physicians, clinicians, and staff traveled to Biloxi, Miss., to serve at a makeshift primary care clinic. The group treated a variety of illnesses, ranging from sore throats and infections to heart conditions. On September 17, St. Dominic employees and the local chapter of the Wahabi Shriners provided 1,500 sausage biscuits and 4,200 barbecued chicken meals for relief workers and hurricane victims in Gulfport, Miss.
Not enough can be said about the sense of community spirit, compassion, and dedication shown by St. Dominic employees during this most difficult time in Mississippi’s history. “It was just absolutely incredible to see how out of adversity good comes,” said Sister Dorotha Sondgeroth, chief executive officer of St. Dominic Health Services. She noted that even though many employees had missing loved ones on the coast, they remained focused on patient care. And as the long reconstruction effort continues, employees are giving up their weekends to help rebuild and clean up. To show their appreciation for this hard work and commitment, St. Dominic Health Services made a $10,000 contribution to the Catholic Charities Disaster Relief Fund in honor of the St. Dominic family of caregivers. The Dominican Sisters in Springfield, Ill., contributed to the St. Dominic Hospital Humanitarian Fund for employees’ emergency needs.
Many who experienced this disaster hope and pray that our state and our country never experience another Katrina. However, comfort comes from knowing that those who survive will pull together in times of need to extend the healing hand of Christ.
Claude Harbarger, president of St. Dominic Hospital, reflected on Katrina: “Out of such disasters comes not only challenges and hopes for the future, but also a profound appreciation for friendship and community. The task of recovery and rebuilding after the disaster is daunting and immense, but St. Dominic’s remains a strong part of the community and will continue its mission of ministering to those in need of healing though the long process ahead.
This wast first published in JUST Words, Vol. 6. No. 2, Spring 2006. The author was a marketing representative for St. Dominic Health Services.